BY MICHAEL RICONDA
April 5 of this year marked the anniversary of the deaths of arguably the two most influential rock n’ rollers of the 1990s. In 1994, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana ended his own life with a shotgun blast to his head, while in 2002 on the same day of the year, Layne Staley of Alice In Chains died of a drug overdose after a long period of physical decline.
The two shared obvious commonalities. Both were lead singers and songwriters for their respective bands (in Staley’s case, he shared lead writing duties for Alice in Chains with Jerry Cantrell), both were formative in the development of grunge music as a cultural force, both had a rough, forward style tempered by their own moody longing, and both were tormented by drug addiction, specifically heroin.
This year, Cobain is receiving more attention by far. April 5 was the 20th anniversary of his death, a day which sent shock waves through the musical world and seemed to temporarily stun the alternative rock scene Cobain had come to represent. As a cultural moment alone, the anniversary is significant.
Today, both artists are celebrated as talented but deeply flawed men who died well before their time. Cobain managed to gather more attention to his name and legacy perhaps because his sound was more accessible and touched upon a broader fan base, but in Rockland, a good number of musicians seem to prefer Staley’s heavier, harsher take on grunge than the more experimental, punk-influenced Cobain.
To understand the legacy of the two ’90s rock stars, the Rockland County Times spoke to a number of local musicians regarding Staley and Cobain’s impact on their music and music in general. Cobain mustered his share of praise, but Staley came out on top among those polled. The respondents tended to be from a “metal” background.
“I think Alice in Chains was a more versatile band than Nirvana and Layne’s lyrics had more of an impact on me than Kurt’s,” vocalist and guitarist James Hostompsky of Thiells said. “A lot of their stuff can be categorized as grunge and a lot of it can be categorized as other things where Nirvana mostly fit into that one genre.”
Indeed, Staley’s influences do seem broader and heavier. Staley drew from industrial music and thrash, both of which had developed to an advanced point by the time Alice In Chains hit its peak in 1992. Compared to the subdued and even sluggish sound of Nirvana’s “In Utero,” Alice In Chains albums like “Dirt” and “Facelift” sound downright crunchy.
Anthony Lombardo, who formerly did vocals for 7 and a Switchblade before moving on to a new project, largely agreed with Hostompsky, stressing that drama between Cobain and his wife Courtney Love enhanced Nirvana’s visibility and unfairly drew attention from Staley’s talent.
“Nirvana was a great band, don’t get me wrong, but they are the most over-rated band,” Lombardo explained. “Cobain was a poster child for the wild child.”
The vocals and lyrical content of Staley’s compositions were also praised by a number of the musicians. Staley seemed to speak straight up from his own personal abyss with his own particular brand of urgency. Staley also explored those themes in a side band Mad Season, which featured musicians from several Seattle grunge bands. Mad Seasons enjoys a strong cult following to this day, enhancing Staley’s overall legacy.
A few musicians, like Animist vocalist Chris Rulon and guitarist Mike Tinghetella, reported Cobain’s music had little notable impact on their own styles.
“He didn’t really change anything, and I think that his role on music is kind of overrated,” Rulon said. “Grunge is just garage rock with a Generation X mentality.”
The consensus of this one cohort of local rockers seemed to be that Staley’s versatility and lyrical depth beat out the lighter, more standard sound communicated by Cobain, but Cobain’s more accessible sound did garner some praise.
“What can be said about Nirvana is…what band that formed after them has had the same widespread appeal?” Egokill bass player Alex Schuster said. “And I mean an actual band, not a pop star who has their songs written for them.”
Cobain and Staley represent different sides of the same coin, but in the end they both belted their souls out into their music and showed a brooding vulnerability in rock n’ roll, which will not soon be forgotten. Like anything else, preference between Cobain’s legacy as a straightforward grunge idol and the darker, more abrasive nature of Staley’s music is a matter of opinion. It just so happens Staley had a more visible influence on the heavy metal music currently being created in Rockland County.
As for this humble reporter and music lover’s opinion? There really is no contest; just two artists who left their own unique imprints on modern music. That is how most remember them, and I would expect that is how their legacy will play out. No competition here. Just come as you are.